TBF AVENGER GUNNER
James “Pakis” Papazoglakis, was born April 7, 1923, in New York City, NY. He was the son of Andonios Hatzidimitris Papazoglakis and Andronique Papazoglakis, who immigrated to the United States from Alatsata, in the Smyrna area of Asia Minor. He arrived in Ellis Island, New York on November 16, 1907. The couple also had a daughter named Catherine. James was raised as a normal NY kid for the time. He had a bike and a paper route. He played stickball in the streets and tried going to as many Dodger games as possible. Jim finished high school as WW2 was starting. Because he was too young, his enlistment papers required his parents’ signature. After his father refused to sign for a position in the corps of engineers (because building bridges was dangerous) Jim got him to agree to the Navy, where he served in the "less" perilous position of a tail gunner on a TBF Grummond Avenger Torpedo Bomber. It must be noted that he enlisted against his father's objections because as he said to his son, "they took one country away from us and not another." With WW2 in full scale during 1942, James decided to enlist in the US Navy on December 15, 1942, in the Navy Receiving Station (NRS) New York and he entered active duty on January 31, 1943, in the United States Naval Training School in Sampson New York. Two months later he transferred to Naval Training School at Memphis Tennessee for the course of instruction in Aviation Machinist Mates School at Naval Air Training Center. He began the courses on May 24, 1943, and 21 weeks later, on October 16, 1943, he graduated and was promoted to Aviation Machinist’s Mate 3/c V6 USNR on November 1, 1943. For the next two months, he satisfactory completed a ground course in Naval Aerial Gunnery and was designated Naval Aerial Gunner. On December 27, 1943, he transferred to VTB-2 in NAS Miami Florida. On 10 April 1944, he qualified combat aircrewman after satisfactorily completing 8 weeks of practical instruction in VTB aircraft (TBF & TBM), and two days later he transferred for duty to NAS Norfolk, Virginia. He reported for duty in Torpedo Squadron 83 on June 18, 1944, in Carrier Air Service Unit 22, (CASU-22) at Quonset Point where he arrived on June 7, 1944. The Squadron was newly established, just a month before May 1, 1944.
The Greek American gunner began his operational training along with his new squadron. During November VT-83 re-equipped with the more advanced TBM-3 Avengers and began preparations for the upcoming deployment and combat in the Pacific. The final training took place in the Hawaiian islands and on February 21, 1945, the squadron embarked on the USS Nassau CVE-16 for Guam arriving on March 4. Three days later embarked once more in the USS Long Island CVE-1 for Ulithi where they arrived on March 9. The next day VT-83 finally embarked on their "home" the USS Essex CV-9 for carrier combat duty. On March 14 Essex and her Air Group CVG-83 sailed for Okinawa to support the operation against the Japanese forces. No one in Essex could contemplate what would happen in the ensuing weeks. But ultimately, it would be, by almost any measure, the longest, most intense, and most arduous combat cruise of World War Two by any carrier and air group. No other fleet carrier would match the combat record compiled by Essex and Air Group 83 during this cruise. All the pilots and crews were anxiously waiting to engage the enemy. Papazoglakis wasn’t the only Greek American on board the Essex. In VT-83's sister Squadron, VB-83, Thomas Samaras (https://www.greeks-in-foreign-cockpits.com/pilots-crews/bomber-pilots-copilots/thomas-samaras/) also waited to strike his targets with his Helldiver while James Sakellariades (https://www.greeks-in-foreign-cockpits.com/pilots-crews/fighter-pilots/james-sakellariades/) of VBF-83 was ready to protect the fleet from Kamikaze and support the ground troops with his F4U Corsair. Sailing beside their carrier, one more proud Greek American, the Captain of USS Wallace L. Lind, George DeMetropolis (https://www.history.navy.mil/research/library/research-guides/modern-biographical-files-ndl/modern-bios-d/demetropolis-george.html) protected them from enemy submarines and enemy bombers.
James was the turret gunner on a TBF Grumman Avenger flying off the USS Essex, as a part of Air Group CVG-83. Their mission was to attack Japanese fleet units at Kure Naval Base one of four principal naval shipyards operated by the Imperial Japanese Navy, located on the island of Honshu. According to what he said to his son Rev. Thomas Papazoglakis they did not have a radioman and left anything “non-essential” off the plane that day as they needed all the fuel the plane could carry for this mission. They were told they would be flying a long distance with enough fuel to make it to the target and back to the ship with the lighter aircraft. When they approached the target everything seemed to happen very quickly. They flew through very heavy flak to the point that there was a period when he could not see the target, as they broke through to see the target, he was firing the machine gun in his turret while concentrating on the release of his torpedo. According to the VT-83 history, the anti-aircraft fire was the heaviest ever against navy airplanes. During the attack, flak hit the tail section of the plane. The crew immediately release its ordnance and headed back for the carrier, hoping to close as much as possible near the fleet in case they had to make a forced landing at the sea. Out of nowhere a Japanese fighter dived from the clouds and went for the kill. However, their luck hadn’t run out yet. A fighter pilot from the USS Bunker Hill saw the threat and closed fast on the enemy fighter.
Flying in a Vought F4U Corsair, USMC pilot, 1st Lt. Philip. S (Pots) Wilmot and his squadron VMF-451 Blue Devils were tasked also to attack Kure Naval Base, Pots said he had no idea that it would be bad, but when they arrived over Honshu the sky was filled with flak.
"One went off right next to my wing, I closed my eyes thinking I was dead, but all it did was knock me around."
After dive bombing and hitting a carrier with three rockets, Pots was separated from his commander as he pulled up from his dive. In the chaos of the attack, Pots was able to locate fellow pilot 1st Lt. W.E. Brown and slid up into formation with him for the return to their carrier. As they flew under the clouds on their way back to the USS Bunker Hill, Wilmot and Brown spotted a damaged Grumman Avenger TBM-3. The aircraft came out of the clouds smoking and losing altitude. Knowing the plane was not going to make it back to its carrier and that the crew was sitting ducks, the two pilots began to escort the TBM-3 on its descent. The TBM-3 was crewed by Navy Pilot Lt. Ray Plant and Greek American Gunner James Papazoglakis, Aviation Mechanist Mate 3rd Class. Pots remembered:
"Sure enough, a damn Frank, a code name from Imperial Japanese Navy fighter plane, came right out of the clouds trying to finish off the Avenger. Luckily, Lt. Brown was able to fire on the Japanese plane and bring it down before it made contact with the Navy plane."
According to Rev. Thomas Papazoglakis:
"In the stories, my dad always told, he never saw the Japanese plane, he was too busy watching the tail fall off the TBM-3."
The Avenger continued to lose altitude, looking for a place to ditch the aircraft. Off the coast of Honshu in the Pacific Ocean, the pilots stumbled upon the USS Bowfin, an American rescue submarine. Pots watched as Lt. Plant maneuvered his damaged plane. Pots said:
"They plopped into the water, scrabbled out of their plane and onto the deck of the submarine. I couldn't understand how we saved them. We never saved people, we just had to watch them go down, sometimes you cried. It was terrible out there. I was so happy they survived."
During a meeting between Tom Papazoglakis and Pots held in 2018, Tom thanked Pots for saving his father's life. Although he was not alive that day in 1945, he knew that without the help of the two USMC pilots his dad would never have made it back from the war, never married his mother and therefore he, his three sisters nor any of their children would have been born.
"Thank you for doing it," the Rev. Papazoglakis said to Pots, acknowledging that moment long ago when his dad's life was saved. "I think that’s why I was put here, to save Rev. Tom’s dad; that’s my ultimate achievement," Pots said.
Aviation Machinist’s Mate 3/c V6 USNR James Papazoglakis official photo. (Rev. Thomas Papazoglakis)
VT-83 crew pose for the USS Essex Cruise Book. From Left to Right, James Papazoglakis (gunner), Ray Plant Jr (pilot), and F.G. Canonica (radioman) (Mark Herber)
Although not the plane of James Papazoglakis (which was also damaged in the tail area) this dramatic photo is of Lt. Cdr. Henry A. Stewart's (CO VT-83) TBM-3 after being damaged by "five-inch AA" which had exploded underneath it during the bomb run. The crew ditched the plane and was picked up by a destroyer. (US Navy)
1st Lt. Philip. S (Pots) Wilmot was one of the two Marine pilots who attacked the Japanese fighter before it was ready to blow Papazoglakis damaged Avenger out of the sky. (Courtesy of Philip S. Wilmot via Marty Irons)
TBM-3 Avenger BuNo. XXXXX, #40X, 'Clarabelle' was the torpedo plane that was used by Ray's Plant crew, Papazoglakis being one of its members. The #401 is fictional for the purpose of completing the profile because as can be seen in the photo below, only the 4 and 0 are visible. Actually, CVG-83 had a fair amount of nose art-much more than the average carrier. VF 83 had several (at least three) Hellcats with nose art, as did several VBF-83 Corsairs, and most, if not all, of the Avengers. No nose art seen on VB 83 Helldivers. VT 83 got the 4XY modices after May or June 1945 (during Okinawa, they were in the 300s) (Copyright Jim Laurier, further info Mark Herber)
After being rescued James and his pilot returned back to the USS Essex they immediately resumed operations flying numerous sorties against Japanese targets as well as anti-submarine patrols, protecting the Task Force. For his service, James Papazoglakis was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross, the Air Medal with 2 gold stars, the American Campaign Medal, the Asiatic - Pacific Medal with 2 Bronze Stars, the Philippine Liberation Ribbon, and the WW2 Victory Medal. According to the DFC Citation:
"For meritorious achievement in aerial flight as Radioman and Gunner of a Torpedo Plane in Torpedo Squadron BOMBING EIGHT THREE, attached to the USS ESSEX, during action against enemy Japanese forces in the vicinity of Nansei Shoto, Kyushu, Honshu and Hokkaido from March 19 to July 14, 1945. Participating in fifteen strikes on Japanese shipping, airfields, and installations in the face of hostile antiaircraft fire or aerial opposition, PAKIS contributed materially to the infliction of extensive damage on the enemy. His technical skill, courage, and devotion to duty are in keeping with the highest traditions of the United States Naval Service".
After the war ended he received his notice of separation was October 13, 1945. Sometime between October and December 1945, James shortened his last name from Papazoglakis to Pakis. After the War, he was admitted to Oklahoma State University, benefiting from the G.I. Bill and serving in the Army ROTC. He graduated with a bachelor’s degree in industrial engineering. On May 16, 1950, he was commissioned Second Lieutenant, Signal Corps in the U.S. Army. While at OSU he married and fought on the OSU wrestling team. He used his degree as an engineer in the aerospace industry and met the love of his life, Janis Whitmer from Kansas. James and Jan raised their family first in New York, then Detroit, New Orleans, the Mississippi Gulf Coast, and finally Georgia. Jim worked as an industrial engineer first with Chrysler and other defense contractors until retiring from the Department of Defense in 1985. Jim wasn’t a big advice giver unless you were grilling a steak or buying a car, and he wasn’t the guy to come in and hug you after a bad day. But he would be the first to bring you a beer, and if a problem needed fixing, he’d probably figure it out for you. His charm was in his curtness. His manner was endearing in its predictability. He was a fighter – through and through. He passed away Monday, May 18, 2015, of natural causes.
James Papazoglakis sits on the wing of his Avenger, "Clarabelle" along with some men from the squadron engineers. (Rev. Thomas Papazoglakis)
A VT-83 TBM Avenger flies during a strike mission in Okinawa. (Mark Herber)
PAPAZOGLAKIS FAMILY PHOTOS
Papazoglakis family photo with Jim standing beside her sister and his parents. (Rev. Thomas Papazoglakis)
Papazoglakis family and relatives photo before the War World 2. (Rev. Thomas Papazoglakis)
James and Katherine during their early years. (Rev. Thomas Papazoglakis)
A proud father congratulates his son who just got his degree from the University, a few years after the war ended. (Rev. Thomas Papazoglakis)
James Papazoglakis photo taken during his enlistment in the USN. (James Papazoglakis OMPF)
James Papazoglakis pose happily wearing his USN sailor uniform. (Rev. Thomas Papazoglakis)
Rev. Thomas Papazoglakis of Clifton Parks, N.Y., shows WWII veteran 1st Lt. Philip S. (Pots) Wilmot a certificate from the National WWII Museum in New Orleans, that honors Pots, 1st Lt. W.E. Brown and Lt. Ray Plant 0for their heroic efforts during the war.
(Kyle Mills/Post Independent)
Andonios Hatzidimitris Papazoglakis and Andronique Papazoglakis during the early years of their wedding. (Rev. Thomas Papazoglakis)
James in USN sailor uniform poses with his sister Katherine and her friends. (Rev. Thomas Papazoglakis)
Photo of James pilot, Ray Plant, and his family, denoting that he and Ray had relations after the war. (Rev. Thomas Papazoglakis)
We would like to thank for their contribution to this honoring page, Rev. Thomas Papazoglakis, James' son, Marty Irons, aviation history researcher who got me in touch with Rev., writer, Mark Herber, USS Essex, and CVG-83 researcher for the help he always gives to our projects concerning the CV-9 and her Air Groups and Donald Mounts from Global Military Research LLC (G.M.R.) for his continues efforts to bring as many OMPFs we apply for from the National Archives.
1. Personal Correspondence of Dimitris Vassilopoulos with Rev. Thomas Papazoglakis
2. James Papazoglakis Oficial Military Personel File
3. Torpedo Bomber 83 War Diary
4. USS Essex War Diary
5. USS Essex Cruise Book 1945